He says, “I won’t tell you again.”
I start undoing the buttons of my shirt.
“We know each other,” I say.
“No, that cut on your face. We had beers together two nights ago.”
I watch that piece of information land, but it doesn’t derail him like I’d hoped.
He says, “That doesn’t change what has to happen. This is the end, brother. You’d do the same and you know it.”
“I wouldn’t, actually. I thought so at first, but I wouldn’t.”
I slide my arms out of the sleeves, toss him the shirt.
I know what he’s planning: dress himself in my clothes. Go to Daniela pretending to be me. He’ll have to reopen the slash across his face to make it look like a fresh wound.
I say, “I had a plan to protect her.”
“Yeah, I read it. I’m not sacrificing myself so someone else can be with my wife and son. Jeans too.”
I unbutton them, thinking, I misjudged. We’re not all the same.
“How many of us have you murdered tonight?” I ask.
“Four. I’ll kill a thousand of you if that’s what it takes.”
As I pull off the jeans, one leg at a time, I say, “Something happened to you in the box, in those worlds you mentioned. What turned you into this?”
“Maybe you don’t want them back badly enough. And if that’s the case, you don’t deserve them any—”
I throw the jeans at his face and rush him.
Wrapping my arms around Jason’s thighs, I lift with everything I’ve got and run him straight into the wall, crushing the air out of his lungs.
The gun hits the floor.
I kick it into the kitchen as Jason crumples and drive my knee into his face.
I hear bone crunch.
Grabbing his head, I bring my knee back for another blow, but he sweeps my left leg out from under me.
I slam into the hardwood floor, the back of my head hitting so hard I see bursts of light, and then he’s on top of me, blood dripping off his ruined face, one hand squeezing my throat.
When he hits me, I feel my cheek fracture in a supernova of pain below my left eye.
He hits me again.
I blink through a sheet of tears and blood, and the next time I can see clearly, he’s holding a knife in the hand he was hitting me with.
My ears ringing.
A small black hole through his sternum and blood spilling out of it and down the center of his chest. The knife drops from his hands onto the floor beside me. I watch him put a finger in the hole and try to plug it, but the blood won’t be stopped.
He takes a wet, ragged breath and looks up at the man who shot him.
I crane my neck too, just enough to see another Jason aiming a gun at him. This one is clean-shaven, and he’s wearing the black leather jacket that Daniela gave me ten years ago for our anniversary.
On his left hand, a gold wedding band gleams.
Jason2 pulls the trigger again, and the next bullet shears off the side of my attacker’s skull.
I turn over and sit up slowly.
My face on fire.
Jason2 aims the gun at me.
He’s going to pull the trigger.
I actually see my death coming, and I have no words, just a fleeting image of me as a child on my grandparents’ farm in western Iowa. A warm spring day. A massive sky. Cornfields. I’m dribbling a soccer ball through the backyard toward my brother, who’s guarding the “goal”—a space between two maple trees.
I think, Why this last memory on the brink of my death? Was I the most happy in that moment? The most purely myself?
Daniela is standing in the kitchen nook, dressed now.
She looks at Jason2.
She looks at me.
At the Jason with a bullet through his head.
The Jason on the screened-in porch with his throat cut.
And somehow, without so much as a tremor in her voice, she manages to ask, “Where is my husband?”
Jason2 looks momentarily thrown.
I wipe the blood out of my eyes. “Right here.”
“What did we do tonight?” she asks.
“We danced to bad country music, came home, and made love.” I look at the man who stole my life. “You’re the one who kidnapped me?”
He looks at Daniela.
“She knows everything,” I say. “There’s no point in lying.”
Daniela asks, “How could you do this to me? To our family?”
Charlie appears beside his mother, taking in the horror all around us.
Jason2 looks at her.
Then at Charlie.
Jason2 is only six or seven feet away, but I’m sitting on the floor.
I couldn’t reach him before he pulled the trigger.
I think, Get him talking.
“How’d you find us?” I ask.
“Charlie’s cell has a find-my-phone app.”
Charlie says, “I only turned it on for one text late last night. I didn’t want Angela to think I’d blown her off.”
I look at Jason2. “And the other Jasons?”
“I don’t know. I guess they followed me here.”
“I have no idea.” He turns to Daniela. “I got everything I ever wanted, except you. And you haunted me. What we could’ve been. That’s why—”
“Then you should’ve stayed with me fifteen years ago when you had the chance.”
“Then I wouldn’t have built the box.”
“And that would be so terrible, why? Look around. Has your life’s work caused anything but pain?”
He says, “Every moment, every breath, contains a choice. But life is imperfect. We make the wrong choices. So we end up living in a state of perpetual regret, and is there anything worse? I built something that could actually eradicate regret. Let you find worlds where you made the right choice.”
Daniela says, “Life doesn’t work that way. You live with your choices and learn. You don’t cheat the system.”
So slowly, I transfer my weight onto my feet.
But he catches me, says, “Don’t even.”
“You going to kill me in front of them?” I ask. “Really?”
“You had such enormous dreams,” he says to me. “You could’ve stayed in my world, in the life I built, and actually lived them.”